A bill that would have allowed police officers in a suburban New York county to sue and collect financial damages from protesters who harass them was vetoed Tuesday by the county executive, who said the proposed legislation "would inhibit residents' rights to free speech and protest."
Civil rights activists decried the bill, which passed the Nassau County legislature in a 12-6 vote last week, as having been drafted in retaliation for demonstrations after the police killing of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis. After the bill passed the legislature, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said she would seek advice from the state attorney general.
Nassau County, which was recently named the safest county in the country by U.S. News and World Report, is on western Long Island, east of New York City.
"I'm proud of the dedicated first responders who've made Nassau the safest county in America, and I continue to stand firmly with the brave men and women of law enforcement, and against any efforts to 'defund the police,'" Curran said in a statement Tuesday.
She said the guidance provided by New York Attorney General Letitia James "raises issues about the constitutionality of the proposed law, which would inhibit residents' rights to free speech and protest."
"The proposed bill is well-intentioned, but should not come at the costs of the basic First Amendment freedoms that we all enjoy as Americans," Curran said.
The bill would have made police officers and other first responders a protected class under the county's Human Rights Law, which bars discrimination based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. No other professions are protected under the Human Rights Law.
The bill's text said it was necessary because of "a widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at the police." But sponsors of the bill did not provide specific data to support that claim as it relates to Nassau County.
According to the legislative text, the bill would impose penalties of up to $25,000 on anyone who harasses, menaces or injures an officer. The fine would be doubled if those violations occurred during a riot, the bill says.
Joshua Lafazan, a legislator who sponsored the bill, has said it "takes behavior which is already criminal — and has been for many years — and simply adds a civil component under the Human Rights Law, of which first responders are already a protected class."
Tracey Edwards, the NAACP's regional director who said the bill disrespected movements that had fought against discrimination, welcomed the veto but said it was only "step one."
The next step, she said, is to ensure the sponsors of the bill don't override Curran's veto. It would take 13 votes in the county legislature to override the veto.
Chris Boyle, a spokesman for the county legislature's Republican majority, said, "Majority legislators are currently discussing next steps."